By Matthew M. Reed
The Arab League’s greatest achievement arguably came in March of this year when it supported a no-fly zone over Libya. In fact, the no-fly zone would have been impossible without Arab support. The scope of the operation, however, produced buyer’s remorse almost immediately, as the League’s stance changed from one of reluctant activism to genuine worry. Amr Moussa, then Secretary-General of the organization, memorably told Egyptian media that “What is happening in Libya differs from the aim of imposing a no-fly zone.” His comments were made on March 20–only eight days after the Arab League approved the operation. And so it may ultimately be remembered that March 20 was the day when the Arab League started sliding once more into irrelevancy after a brief flirtation with being important.
Last Saturday the Arab League held an emergency session on Syria in which it offered Assad three days to stop the violence. After having killed some 3,500 civilians since democratic protests erupted earlier this year, the Arab League gave the impression that enough was enough, and that such brutality was inexcusable (see Marc Lynch’s phenomenal piece on the miraculous shift of political and cultural norms in this case–I can’t recommend it enough). Syria was threatened with suspension from the organization and sanctions if the violence continued as far as today, November 16. This leverage was compounded by Turkish officials who, though not part of the League, met with the Syrian opposition throughout the week, sat down with League officials today, and promised to coordinate all punitive actions with their Arab neighbors. Then of course there was the implicit threat which Arab leaders did not acknowledge: regional isolation would only increase the likelihood of international isolation and action at the UN Security Council.
Today’s deadline came and went. Wire reports confirm the League will do nothing but wait longer. Amazingly, its members granted Assad three more days to stop the killing and sign a new “protocol” for peaceful resolution; this in spite of the fact that the bloodiest days of the uprising occurred this week, and that dozens more could die between now and Saturday. The grace period makes even less sense given Assad’s refusal to stop the systematic intimidation of diplomats in Damascus as well as consular staff. Since last Saturday, the Qataris, Saudis, Emiratis, Turks, and French have all seen their diplomatic missions attacked and vandalized. Syrian security officials disperse the crowds without urgency–even though the missions are located in some of the most sensitive and secure areas of the capital, where soldiers control streets near the president’s office. It’s only a matter of time until one of these stunts goes wrong and pro-regime thugs do something worse than burn flags.
The Associated Press confirms Syria was suspended today. (Many claim this is an especially hurtful slap in the face given that country’s long-held reputation as the “beating heart of Arab nationalism.” Never mind that Arab nationalism died decades ago.) What suspension truly means is unclear. It won’t have much effect in and of itself since the League is theoretically a platform for Arab political and cultural cooperation. The regime is now suffering from an existential crisis; cutting it off from cultural programs won’t change that. Political isolation might also have a ceiling, since the regime still enjoys the backing of Iran, Iraq, Russia, and China. Really, the only way the Arab League’s suspension will matter is if it translates into Turkish action–since Turkey is the only one of Syria’s neighbors with leverage–or international action, which Moscow and Beijing may still deny. If anything these sanctions could initiate a new round of European and American sanctions with debatable effects.
Morocco’s state-run news now reports that an observation mission was agreed upon by the League but must be accepted by Syria still. This amounts to nothing since any observation mission will only confirm what YouTube videos already tell us: regardless of Arab, Turkish, and Syrian pleas, the violence continues and is even gathering pace. Assad will most likely reject it anyway. If he accepts observers they will arrive only so that Assad can draw out the observation process and delay sanctions.
Perhaps the most concerning development today is the weak language employed by Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al Thani of Qatar, who chairs the Syrian committee at the Arab League. The Qataris deserve a great deal of credit for setting the agenda this year, be it as the source of Al Jazeera–which helped frame the revolutionary narrative of 2011–or the dynamo energizing the debate over Libya. But in comments made after the meeting, al Thani was anything but firm. “We do not want to talk about a last-ditch attempt because I do not want this to sound like a warning,” al Thani said. “What I can say is that we are close to the end of the road as far as the [Arab League’s] efforts on this front are concerned.” That doesn’t sound like an ultimatum. If the League is reaching the “end of the road” soon but does not wish to warn Assad explicitly, the path forward is clear: sanctions at best, which will not stop Assad, and condemnations definitely, with these having little affect on a regime already made blind and deaf by chaos. The current Secretary-General of the League, Nabil al Araby, topped the remarks off by concluding now was not the time for an Arab League summit on Syria. It’s worth noting as well that officials have yet to clarify what sanctions are under consideration.
To be generous, this additional and unexpected grace period could be a product of this week’s increased violence and the militarization of the uprising. League officials may not be convinced that Assad can wind down his killing machine when the Syrian opposition is making its most daring armed raids. But the Turks must be telling Arab officials on the sidelines that Assad’s course is set. Back in August, Assad humiliated Prime Minister Erdogan and Foreign Minister Davutoglu by promising reforms and not delivering. Erdogan called him repeatedly by phone. Davutoglu visited several times. Turkey’s ambassador to Syria even visited the devastated city of Hama, where he reported that Syrian armor and soldiers were withdrawn. Violence continued in spite of their efforts and promises made.
As I’ve said before, the Arab League stands at a critical juncture–it can take the high road and become consequential as a platform for human rights in a new era of Arab politics; or, it can remain a dysfunctional organ beholden to autocratic interests at a time when arbitrary rule is becoming anachronistic. Today’s news is not encouraging. Few would dare argue that the Arab League mattered much before its bold March 12 vote on Libya or the suspension of Libya from the League in late February. But the hesitancy expressed on March 20 and repeated failures to hold Syria accountable since November 2, when Syria supposedly accepted the Arab League’s plan, all but confirm the organization is doomed to irrelevancy. Even then action may only confirm the worst. If economic sanctions and overwhelming condemnations do not move Damascus, the Arab League will be left to wonder what it can achieve when consensus is found.